The cost of digital silence in Turkey: 40 million euros

Turkey is known for attempts to control information contradicting official propaganda. However, a recent deal between the Turkish Government and a Swedish company running software to combat child porn could silence the digital opposition permanently.

Jakub Hein
20 December 2014

At first glance, Turkey seems to be a friendly tourist destination. However, there is a disturbing evidence that the country is having trouble providing its citizens with a right to freedom of speech. Hasan “Barva” Keleş, a Turkish activist, has experienced pressure from the authorities over his campaign following the Gezi park events.

After the police crackdown on the protesters, he decided to gather footage of secret police in the streets of Istanbul and put them on YouTube. He would go around the city, taking selfies and shooting videos of himself standing next to a secret police officer. Although in plain clothes, members of the special unit could be recognized by a particular black backpack they were always wearing.

“The policemen had already beaten me up at the Atatürk Cultural Center, out of the sight of cameras. I know they also might call my company to let me go. When you mess with the government, you have to be ready for this,” says Keleş. Still, he decided to keep up his fight despite the personal consequences he could suffer. ”If I die, thousands more will come to fill my place,” he adds.

Almost fifty thousand websites banned

Online numbers suggest a similar practice of limiting free speech is being applied on websites in Turkey. “Currently, our country leads the world in demands for removal of content from global digital corporations, even though in most cases these demands are in violation of freedom of expression or the right to acquire information,” says Yaman Akdeniz, professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and an Internet rights advocate.

Between May 2007 and July 2014, Turkey blocked access to approximately 48,000 websites subject to its controversial Internet Law No. 5651. Human rights lawyer Gönenç Gürkaynak points out that Turkey’s censorship ranking is confirmed by the latest Google and Twitter transparency reports.

Sometimes, not only is the content removed, but also its authors – from their work positions. According to Gökhan Tan, a Turkish journalist and photographer, there are two main ways this is done. For anyone criticizing the state, “either there will be a letter from the government requiring you to be fired or, if you are lucky, you will be advised by your editor to drop the subject.”

Threats of murder and rape

Tuğba Tekerek, a journalist at Taraf, a liberal Turkish newspaper, also felt the consequences of speaking out. “It is already hard for me to get accepted into any media company close to the government because of my critical tweets about Erdoğan,” she says.

As for censorship and self-censorship in Turkish newspapers, she says various standards are applied.  “Some editors just tell you to watch your Twitter. Others directly order you not to tweet about politics to make sure you stay on the safe side.”

"Every journalist in Turkey knows he is being followed and feels the pressure that he will be fired if he tweets against the government. There are stories about people from government coming to newsrooms with a file on each journalist. They approach editors and tell them what you have been tweeting and that it should stop.”

According to Tekerek, woman journalists face a special threat. “The Justice and Development Party (AKP), the leading government party, uses an army of ‘trolls’ on the Internet.” Anyone running foul of Erdoğan risks massive amount of people loyal to the AKP flooding their Twitter wall. If that person is a woman, they will not stop at regular insults. “Threats will include murder, rape, or preferably, both. Chauvinism is still strong in Turkey.”

A cover up for corruption 

Sometimes, the Twitter admins themselves step in. Barkın Karslı is a journalist who was directly contacted by Twitter and asked to delete a tweet. He was also warned that he might be subject to penalty due to a Turkish court order sent to Twitter. 

His tweet contained a link to a telephone recording between a pro-AKP businessman Abdullah Tivnikli and an official consultant of Prime Minister Erdoğan, İbrahim Kalın, who incriminated him.

This case illustrates another example of the usual excuses concerning the  censorship of content in Turkey. “Protection of private life” apparently also includes leaked phone conversations about high-level corruption. “For the time being I am trying to get the whole picture of what is happening and what will happen to me,” says Karslı.

The list of journalists persecuted over remarks on social sites is vast. Ttuluhan Tekelioğlu was fired from Sabah Daily during the Gezi protests. So was Yavuz Baydar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, Can Dündar, Derya Sazak, Nazlı Ilıcak, Banu Güven, Ece Temelkuran, Işın Eliçin, Mehmet Altan, Murat Toklucu, Sevim Gözay, Nur Batur, Murat Aksoy, Fikri Akyüz, Deniz Ülke Arıboğan, Alper Görmüş, Balçiçek İlter, Fikret Aydemir and Osman Özsoy.

Some decide to leave the country to avoid prosecution. Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist from Azerbaijan posted a Twitter message last December 25 stating, 'Turkish prosecutors order police to arrest al-Qaeda affiliates, Erdogan's appointed police chiefs refuse to comply' linking to Today's Zaman website. Zeynalov was targeted by pro-government media in a smear campaign and immediately sued by Erdoğan, demanding a prison sentence. Following an official deportation order from the state, he decided to leave Turkey.

Banning ‘low morals’

All this has not silenced public discontent. So Turkey has repeatedly witnessed complete bans of YouTube and Twitter, among others. Most recently, Twitter was banned nationwide during March and YouTube was down for April. Erdoğan treats social media as a source of ‘low morals’ in society, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Anadolu Üniversitesi in Istanbul, the second largest in the world by enrolment, provides distance learning for visually handicapped students. Around two years ago, two weeks before exams, students lost all access to the learning materials on YouTube. The authorities did not provide any alternative so the university had to search for other ways to get them through their education.

Other collateral victims were those needing blood and organs, who could not connect with donors days before the March elections, says Tekerek.

Don’t touch my internet

In May 2011, during huge protests in 36 cities in Turkey, a march was called in Istanbul, under the banner, Don’t touch my Internet. In one of the busiest avenues in the city centre, the Istiklal Caddesi near Taksim square, tens of thousands of Turks gathered to protest against new changes in the infamous Internet Law No. 5651. The Turkish Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) had decided to ban 138 words from Turkish domain site names. 

Those words could potentially lead to porn websites, but this ban in fact put many ordinary sites out of operation. For example, the website “donanimalemi.com” (hardwareworld.com) was closed because the domain name had banned the word “animal” in it. Likewise “sanaldestekunitesi.com,” (virtualsupportunit.com) would not be able to operate under its current name because it had “anal” in it.

The protest itself was peaceful, so was the police response. There was no violence, even though the streets were filled with an angry mob. “I don’t remember any police violence against protesters before Gezi park events. It was usual for Kurds, but not for Istanbul people,” says Turkish student Canberk Begyova.

Tweets end up at court 

Then came May 2013 and the whole of Turkey was plunged into the turbulent Gezi events. This was also the turning point for Turkey’s online sphere. Among others, 29 women and men were prosecuted for sending tweets during protests. “It was only after Gezi when the reality hit the people on the ground. When the Twitter users were called up for trial, we realized that we can actually be sued for what we write on Twitter,” says Azerbaijani blogger Arzu Gebullayeva, presently living in Turkey. 

The users were accused of “inciting the public to break the law” and could face up to three years in prison. Three of them were also accused of ‘insulting’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey at that time, and named as a victim in the case. Even though Erdoğan is always happy to criticize Facebook and Twitter as a root of all evil, he himself has a Facebook page with over 700,000 likes.

The tweets provided information such as locations where the police were using force against demonstrators, passwords for available wireless networks in the protest area, or contained opinions and messages of support for the demonstrations. According to Amnesty International, none of them contained any incitement to, or indication of participation in, violence.

Censoring to prevent crime

After a whole series of protests following Gezi, organizers of the Don’t touch my Internet march decided to do another event in January 2014. This time, the reason was the even stricter internet regulation proposed by the government. Power was given them to block websites or remove content accused of privacy violations without a court decision. All this could be done in merely four hours. Internet providers were also instructed to keep user information for two years and provide it to government on request. 

Another law debated in parliament proposes that website owners should be required to register their full names and names of the authors who write for them. The law is very similar to the one adopted by the Russian Duma in August. “If this passes - and it probably will - it will be an open book system. If the government knows who owns each website, they will be able to easily arrest anybody,” adds Gebullayeva.

Recent developments show that the direction towards stricter censorship is clear. In the first days of September, a new law expanded the powers of TIB even further. Now, websites can be blocked if it is deemed necessary for matters of "national security, the restoration of public order and the prevention of crimes". Previously, these powers were limited only to cases of privacy violations. 

The system itself becomes so complicated that the average user can’t really understand what could be subject to censorship. “Will they censor this? Yes. No. Maybe. Actually, people don’t know how things are going to work out. We just learn the tricks to defend ourselves from these laws,” explains Begyova.

Software to profile citizens

Recently, Turkey is witnessing new talks taking place that could lead to even tighter online censorship. Turkish Telecom, for example, has begun negotiations with Procera Networks for the acquisition of software that will allow it to monitor visited web pages, HTTPS traffic, and exchanges on Whatsapp and Skype services. This company, which specializes in “location awareness” services (basically Orwellian Newspeke for online surveillance), has future plans which are very disturbing.

“Leaked documents that were published by daily Taraf show that the government will ask Procera to actually carry out the things we were afraid of in the first place. Their software could be used for mass-surveillance and profiling of citizens according to their ethnic, religious, linguistic, sexual, political affiliations and identities,” said Gurkan Ozturan from the Pirate party in Turkey.

40 million euros to filter the internet

The Interior Ministry of Turkey has recently announced a deal with Swedish Internet company NetClean that was founded with donations from Queen Sylvia of Sweden. For a price tag of 40 million euros, they have purchased an online content filtering software.

Using an automated method called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), it is able to remove malicious content and alleged child pornography from Twitter and other sites automatically within five seconds, according to the report from Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News.

However, pro-government Sabah Daily published an article stating that the software will also be used to remove “black propaganda” from Twitter. This time, the Turkish government decided not to try and hide their ambition to censor content as an attempt to protect children. Although the article was later pulled off the site, it was republished on Haber7 website where it is still accessible.

Officially, the government rejects accusations of censorship, yet there are serious doubts about the true reasons behind the implementation of the software. 

“We are now told, in a country where violence towards women and children are systematically neglected, that DPI will be put in place out of a concern for child pornography,” said a representative of Alternative Informatics Association in the opening speech at Ungov Forum.

Even though government intentions on protecting children are always strongly promoted in pro-AKP media, the ‘offline’ world looks different. The country lacks policies to cope with child brides or child labour. “Children get subjected to all kinds of terrible things and they decide to protect children online; it does not seem very sincere to me,” says Gürkan Özturan from the Pirate Party in Turkey.

In addition, DPI is extremely intrusive and, although it can be used to block certain kinds of content, it would also allow to the authorities to access the content of emails and other confidential material. The way this system works can be explained by a simple analogy. When the postman delivers a postcard, he looks only at the address. Using DPI, it is as if he read the whole letter.

The effectiveness of the system in combating online paedophilia is, quoting the words of Ilden Dirini of the Alternative Informatics Association, “like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.” When used, the DPI allows the authorities to see credit card information, direct messages on social sites and virtually any online content running on the Turkish infrastructure.

Child protection or silencing the opposition?

Although negotiations on the NetClean deal take place behind closed doors, Tunca Öğreten from the daily Taraf was able to acquire a secret leaked memo from TIB. It requires Internet providers in Turkey to purchase the hardware necessary for running DPI software.

Some providers still objected that breaching of the HTTPS security protocol required is unlawful. However, Taraf reports that those providers were given a blunt answer from TIB: “There are countries that are able to breach HTTPS traffic; figure it out and do the same.” 

There is a clear gain in these mechanisms of the deal for the Turkish government. The telecommunication authority does not install the censorship software on its own and asks private companies to do it. According to the present Internet Law No. 5651, the authorities are allowed to require providers to comply, otherwise their licences will be revoked. Yet, responsibility for any misconduct concerning access to the sensitive user information falls on those companies. 

When the infrastructure is ready, the censorship and surveillance software will be implemented by a Turkish company called Anka IT and Consulting, which is now an official partner of NetClean. 

The problem is not with the original purpose of NetClean’s software, which is locating and removing child abuse content. However, the fact that the government might use it for silencing the opposition is disturbing.

There is a petition called Alet Etme (Do not make use of) that has tried to start a debate on this issue. “The government is using the concept of child protection as a cover to really limit the content on the Internet,” explains Gebullayeva. 

Digital gestapo is born

If President Erdoğan decides to use these newly acquired means to censor Turkish online space, the whole process will be done out of the public sight. “New bills along with the plans to install NetClean software allow the Turkish secret service to become a digital Gestapo,” explains Özturan. “In one or two years, Turkey will become even stricter in online censorship than China or Iran,” adds Öğreten. 

Kerem Altiparmak, assistant professor doctor from Ankara University and renowned Turkish Internet rights advocate says: “With other measures that are being taken by the government, the Internet will completely be under control in Turkey.”

So far, the incidents with popular journalists, massive public protests and the development of Turkey’s Internet laws clearly show that Erdoğan is not a fan of democratic dialogue with the opposition. And judging from his recent moves, the plan for the future does not promise any light at the end of the still narrower tunnel of strict censorship in Turkey.

Read more from our 'Closely observed citizens' series here.

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